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Wednesday July 30th 2014

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Too Close for Comfort

Domestic violence in Escambia County
By Jennie McKeon

As you put on your running shoes for races and walks that honor April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, you think about the national numbers – according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one in six women has fallen victim to attempted or completed rape. But, maybe it’s time to put a local face to those numbers and think about the domestic violence, which is the umbrella over physical, mental and sexual abuse that occurs in Escambia County.

According to the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, there were 3,014 offenses in which the victim/offender relationship qualified the incident as domestic violence in 2011. Of those offenses, 34.5 percent involved cohabitant relationships. In 2002, Escambia County had 1,683 domestic violence incidents and the number has been rising since. There was a small decrease between 2010 and 2011 years, but over 3,000 incidents were reported both years.  The sheriff’s office does not take these numbers lightly.

“Domestic violence, sadly, remains one of our worst societal ills,” said Escambia County Sheriff, David Morgan. “After years of study and educational programs, it remains one of the crimes most likely to lead to the death of its victims. One of the primary focuses of this administration has been to do all that we can to lessen the incidence of these crimes.”

When domestic violence occurs, there’s a likely chance that the victim has also endured sexual abuse or rape.

“Domestic violence includes sexual assault,” said Sue Hand, executive director at FavorHouse. “Fifty-five percent of the time partners are sexually assaulted.”

More than a House

FavorHouse of Northwest Florida, Inc. has been assisting women and men in gaining back their lives after abuse since 1979. The house was built after a task force study in 1976 found that there was no housing for victims of spousal abuse and their children. The Spouse Abuse Task Force then became Favor (Family Anti-Violence in Organized Response).

“I applaud the community-effort to build the FavorHouse,” Hand said. “To have had the forethought – that says a lot.”

Ninety-eight percent of victims seeking shelter at FavorHouse are women, but slowly men have become more visible. Hand also notes that almost 50 percent of the time, children are being abused as well, and often accompany their parents to FavorHouse.

“We are seeing more and more men come forward,” Hand said. “Not too long ago we had a young father come in with his six-week-old baby.”

FavorHouse provides shelter, food, clothing and counseling for victims for a minimum six-week stay.
“They can come in at any time of the night,” Hand said. “Most come with little to nothing.”

All too often, victims go back to their abusers.

“It a personal choice,” Hand said. “We work to develop safety plans and how to get free of a violent relationship, but offenders are charismatic and manipulative. They play on a woman’s emotions. We always encourage women to remember who they are, but sometimes it takes four or five times of leaving and coming back before leaving for good. If he hit you once, he’ll hit you a second time.”

Hand points out that some men can change, which is why FavorHouse offers counseling and education for offenders on how to be a better partner.

Kimberly Tatum is a local advocate for domestic violence. She currently serves as the vice president of the FavorHouse Board of Directors and is a chairperson of the Escambia County Domestic Violence Coalition. Tatum was a prosecutor who focused on domestic violence cases and now works as associate professor of legal studies and assistant dean of the college of professional studies at University of West Florida.

“When I encounter victims of domestic violence, I always give them a flyer from FavorHouse,” Tatum said. “FavorHouse is the only certified domestic violence shelter in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. It serves a vital need because it offers safe shelter to victims and children who have no place to go.”

FavorHouse is open 24-hours a day, year round and also has a 24-hour crisis line (434-6600). However, if someone should find themself in harm’s way, they should call 911, first.

Seeking Justice

Because most victims’ offenders are friends and family, it can be hard to want to involve law enforcement. No one wants to call the cops on someone they love. FavorHouse as well as Lakeview Center work as the middle man to put you in touch with law enforcement and help you seek an injunction for protection.

“It is of upmost importance that the victim reports the abuse to law enforcement,” said Escambia County Deputy Matt Baxter. “Without the report, the process of getting the victim help is much harder. Victims should understand that in the cases of domestic violence they are not pursuing charges, instead, the State of Florida is.”

Trying to recover from abuse takes enough of a toll on victims that worrying about the legal processes takes a backseat. FavorHouse and Lakeview’s crisis hotline provide victims with all necessary knowledge. Tatum explains there are two types of legal processes involving domestic violence cases. FavorHouse and Lakeview offer advocates to go to hearings with victims when needed.

“The first is the criminal system,” she said. “If a victim calls the police and the police respond and arrest the offender, Florida law requires that the offender will stay in jail until he/she appears before a judge at first appearance – usually the following day.”

A criminal case may require the victim to testify in court and can be a lengthy process. The other legal process is the civil process. Victims can petition the court for an injunction of protection at the Clerk of Court’s Office. After submission, a judge will review and decide on a temporary injunction and set a hearing to occur within 14 days. The victim and the offender will both have the chance to be heard by the judge and a decision on a permanent injunction will be given.

“This injunction orders the offender not to have any contact with the victim, and not to go to her residence, place of employment, school, or any other place she frequents,” Tatum said. “This process can be quicker than the criminal process.”

Community Involvement

Escambia County Domestic Violence Coalition and the Department of Justice Studies at UWF just recently held a training session titled “The Professional’s Challenge in Addressing Domestic Violence.” Police officers, prosecutors, probation officers, social workers and child welfare advocates all met to work on improving the community’s response to abuse.

It’s important that the community be aware of what’s happening so that at the upcoming awareness events, they will know what they’re fighting for.

“Domestic violence is not just a criminal justice problem, nor is it just a family problem,” Tatum said. “It is a serious crime that deserves our attention in taking it seriously and providing services to help those affected by it, and to hold offenders accountable.”

FAVORHOUSE WHITE ROSE LUNCHEON WITH GUEST SPEAKER LESLIE MORGAN STEINER
WHEN:  11:30 a.m. Thursday, May 17
WHERE: Sanders Beach Community Center, 913 S. I St.
DETAILS: favorhouse.org or 434-1177

WALK HER WAY
WHEN:  5:30 p.m. Friday, June 15
WHERE:  Rosemary Beach Town Center, Rosemary Beach, Fla.
COST: Advance registration is $30 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under. Proceeds benefit Shelter House of Northwest Florida.
DETAILS: Malayne DeMars at 231-7382 or walkherway.com